A walking seminar

I’m just back from Paris, where I spent three days at a marvellous (and marvellously small) workshop on War and medicine organised with flair and brio by Vinh-Kim Nguyen.  More on that later, but we began with a ‘walking seminar’.

This was a new venture for me, and Vinh-Kim explained that he had first encountered it in the Netherlands.  The basic idea is to take a small group (six to eight people) and walk in the countryside together but in pairs, changing around every 40 minutes, in order to have intense conversations with each other.

St German en Laye forest

In theory, the first twenty minutes of each ‘block’ is devoted to the work of one of the pair, changing over mid-way to explore the work of the other, though in practice I suspect most of us enjoyed mutual conversations throughout the 40 minutes.  Then the pairs change.  It was far more enjoyable than sitting round a table in a seminar room, but also far more productive: the conversations were wide-ranging but focused (we’d all read one another’s papers, essays and drafts in advance), and the whole experience – we walked from 1000 to 1430 through the national forest at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris – was exhilarating.  I know that many people think best on their feet, and I can’t remember when I learned so much in such a concentrated period with such pleasure.  And it was an incredibly productive springboard for the rest of the workshop.

Walking seminar St Germain en Laye, December 2012

L-R: Zoe Wool,  Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Fanny Chabrol, Ken MacLeish, Alex Edmonds, Catherine Lutz, Omar Dewachi, Ghassan Abu-Sitta

I’m now thinking how to use this to kickoff my graduate seminar next year.  No problem in finding a forest, but on Monday we ended up in a fine French restaurant for a lunch that took up most of what was left of the afternoon…

More from Annemarie Mol on walking seminars here, and posts about an Oxford version here.  I know that regular seminars can work very well too, but if anyone has any other ideas on how to enliven the proceedings or simply ring the changes let’s share them.

Political concepts

A new edition (in fact the second) of Political concepts, an online magazine, includes – among many other fine things – essays by Susan Buck-Morss on Civilization, Ariella Azoulay on Revolution, Hagar Kotef on Movement and Uday Mehta on Violence.

The first edition included Ann Laura Stoler on Colony (a must-read, dazzling combination of economy and brilliance) and Adi Ophir on Concept (a characteristically artful, original and lapidary contribution).

Buck-Morss Civilization

The editors explain the project like this:

Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon is a multidisciplinary, web-based journal that seeks to be a forum for engaged scholarship. Each lexical entry will focus on a single concept with the express intention of resituating it in the field of political discourse by addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought in that concept. Each entry will serve as a short defining essay for a concept. Through their argumentative strategies and employment of the concept in question, entries will aim to reconfigure a concept, rather than take for granted the generally accepted definitions of that concept or the conclusions that follow from them.

Political Concepts does not predetermine what does or does not count as a political concept. Our aim is to expand the scope of what demands political accounting, and for this reason we welcome essays that fashion new political concepts or demonstrate how concepts deserve to be taken as politically significant. It is our view that “politics” refers to the multiplicity of forces, structures, problems, and orientations that shape our collective life. Politics enters the frame wherever our lives together are staked and wherever collective action could make a difference to the outcome. As no discipline possesses an hegemony over this critical space, we welcome submissions from all fields of study.

We consider Political Concepts to be “a critical lexicon” because each contribution resituates a particular aspect of political meaning, thereby opening pathways for another future—one that is not already determined and ill-fated. The term “critical” in our title is also meant quite literally: Political Concepts is a forum for conversation and constructive debate rather than the construction of an encyclopedic ideal. Each entry will therefore be appended by a curated Replies section that will be updated frequently in order to maintain an ongoing exchange.

I suspect this is – or rather ought to be – the model for any future dictionaries of geography…

More to the point, though, there is now such a wealth of these online platforms that it seems clear that more and more of us want to engage with audiences beyond disciplinary boundaries and beyond the academy altogether – look, for example, at berfois, books & ideas, fast capitalisminterstitial, laterallimn, or warscapes – and that, as we become dissatisfied with conventional modes of publishing (and their often grotesque marketing models) and with ill-designed, textist forms of presentation, the death-knell of the old-style (not even retro) academic journal is sounding loud and clear.

Project Z

In 2010 James Der Derian (with David and Michael Udris) released Human Terrain, a film that explored the US Army’s Human Terrain Teams and its projected ‘cultural turn’ in counterinsurgency.

Human Terrain

‘Human Terrain’ is two stories in one. The first exposes a new Pentagon effort to enlist the best and the brightest in a struggle for hearts and minds. Facing long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military initiates ‘Human Terrain Systems’, a controversial program that seeks to make cultural awareness the centerpiece of the new counterinsurgency strategy. Designed to embed social scientists with combat troops, the program swiftly comes under attack as a misguided and unethical effort to gather intelligence and target enemies.   Gaining rare access to wargames in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth, ‘Human Terrain’ takes the viewer into the heart of the war machine and a shadowy collaboration between American academics and the military.

The other story is about a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team. After working as a humanitarian activist in the Western Sahara, Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere, and winning a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, Michael Bhatia returns to Brown University to take up a visiting fellowship.  In the course of conducting research on military cultural awareness, he is recruited by the Human Terrain program and eventually embeds with the 82nd Airborne in eastern Afghanistan.  On the way to mediate an intertribal dispute, Bhatia is killed when his humvee hits a roadside bomb.

War becomes academic, academics go to war, and the personal tragically merges with the political, raising new questions about the ethics, effectiveness, and high costs of counterinsurgency.

Der Derian has now released a new film project, completed with Philip Gara, Project Z: the final global event.  The trailer (below) was released last month – at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11 – and according to a press notice, its release was ‘in acknowledgement of a cascading series of related dates – from the 11/ fall of the Berlin Wall, to the 9/11 attacks in the US, to the Arab Spring’s 2/11/11 removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.’

“If we don’t learn from these events, we’re headed for the final global event,” says head of the Global Media Project (GMP), James Der Derian, who is producing the film. Directed by Phil Gara ’08, a first-time filmmaker coming out of the GMP, the documentary features some of the world’s leading policy thinkers, military strategists, and critical theorists in an entirely new context, which they have embraced in the spirit of producing innovative global interest media that can reach new audiences.

And yes, “Z” stands for “Zombie.” As in, “we need to stop going around like the undead, wake up, and start making the tough decisions about how we want to live in a global community,” Der Derian says.

Trailer is here:

I’m grateful to Cathy Lutz for the information.

Drezner International politics and zombiesIn posting this, I’m mindful not only of Rob Sullivan‘s critical response to Trevor Paglen‘s The Last Pictures (incidentally, the URL gloriously converts Paglen to “Pagen”….) and all those interested in ‘zombie geographies‘… For a different take that none the less loops back to Der Derian’s concerns in both his films, see Gaston Gordillo‘s perceptive commentary on Marc Forster’s forthcoming film World Revolution Z, based on Max Brooks‘s novel:

Zombie epidemics and revolutionary situations share a similar spatiality: a territorial disintegration through which multitudes that do not take orders from the state dissolve state-controlled spaces. InWorld War Z and also on the hugely popular TV show The Walking Dead, the zombie multitudes create, through this territorial dissolution, an overwhelming spatial void that is first generated in urban centers and subsequently expands outwardly. As Lefebvre insisted, in an increasingly urbanized world the most radical insurrections are (and will be) urban phenomena. This is why the panoptic surveillance of urban space is a key priority of the imperial security apparatus, as Stephen Graham demonstrates in Cities under Siege. In The Walking Dead, the urban nature of the zombie insurrection is particularly apparent in the opening episodes, when the zombie takeover of the city of Atlanta forces survivors to flee to rural areas. In one scene, attack helicopters bombard the city with napalm, the epitome of counter-insurgency weapons. In subsequent episodes, the spatial voiding created by the collapse of the state acquires a particularly haunting presence. For months on end, the small band of survivors lives on the run, in hiding, always on the edge and with their weapons at the ready, suffocated by the spatial emptiness that surrounds them —a voiding not unlike the one experienced by imperial troops in terrains controlled by local insurgencies, be that of the jungles of South America in the 1600s or the mountains of Afghanistan today.

World War Z

The military and the mob

Double Tap streamMichael Kelley notes that Josh Begley‘s tweeted enumeration of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia at Dronestream confirms the vile ‘double-tap‘ strategy in which a first strike is rapidly followed by a second targeting rescuers.  As Kelley notes, ‘A 2007 report by the Homeland Security Institute called double taps a “favorite tactic of Hamas” and the FBI considers it a tactic employed by terrorists.’

The militarised practice has been widely reported – not least in Staford/NYU’s Living under Drones – but Begley’s cascade of tweets provides a powerful statement of its relentless rhythm.  In September Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of the attacks, told Britain’s Independent newspaper:

“These strikes are becoming much more common…  In the past it used to be a one-off, every now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

Far from any justification, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings argues that such attacks constitute war crimes.  In fact, as Gwynne Dyer points out,

“DOUBLE TAP” IS what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Street gangs of Baghdad.001

It’s not so long ago that the Pentagon was alarmed at the presence of members of US street gangs among its soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad (see Frank Main, ‘Gangs claim their turf in Iraq’, Chicago Sun-Times 1 May 2006).  It’s high time the US took a look at mobsters patrolling the skies too.

Thanks to my good friend Oliver Belcher for the original link.

After Hiroshima

slavick After HiroshimaFollowing my post on artists and bombing, and in particular the work of elin o’Hara slavick, elin has written with news of her new book, After Hiroshima, due in March from Daylight, with what she calls a ‘ridiculously brilliant essay’ from James Elkins.

If you’re interested in two different but none the less intimately related works, I recommend Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki (Doubleday, 2012), which is extraordinarily good at placing those terrible attacks in the context of a strategic air war waged primarily against civilians (according to the Air Force Weekly Intelligence Review at the time, ‘There are no civilians in Japan’: sound familiar?) – and this needs to be read in conjunction with David Fedman and Cary Karacas, ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping the destruction of urban Japan in World War II’, Journal of historical geography 38 (2012) 303-26 (you can get a quick visual version here) – and Rosalyn Deutsche’s Hiroshima after Iraq: three studies in art and war (Columbia, 2010), based on her Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory given in 2009.

You can get a preview of elin’s ‘After Hiroshima’ project here. Scrolling down that page, my eye was caught by the image ‘Woman with burns through kimono’, taken in 1945, which transported me to another ridiculously brilliant work, Kamila Shamsie‘s dazzling novel Burnt Shadows.  I’ve been haunted by it ever since I read it, and in the draft of the first chapter of The everywhere war I start with this passage from the novel:

Burnt Shadows

And this is how I go on (and please remember this is a draft):

A man is being prepared for transfer to the American war prison at Guantanamo Bay: unshackled, he strips naked and waits on a cold steel bench for an orange jumpsuit.  ‘How did it come to this?’ he wonders.  This is the stark prologue to Kamila Shamsie’s luminous novel Burnt Shadows.  She finds her answer to his question in a journey from Nagasaki in August 1945 as the second atomic bomb explodes, through Delhi in 1947 on the brink of partition, to Pakistan in 1982-3 as trucks stacked with arms grind their way from the coast to the border training-camps, and so finally to New York, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in 2001-2.   These are all, in their different ways, conflict zones and the turning-points of empires, tracing an arc from the cataclysmic end of the Second World War through the Cold War to the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11.   In this book, I follow in her wake; I find myself returning to her writing again and again.  Although this is in part the product of her lyrical sensibility and imaginative range, there are three other reasons that go to the heart of my own project and which provide the framework for this chapter.

The first flows from the historical arc of the novel.   Shamsie is adamant that Burnt Shadows is not her ‘9/11 novel’.  She explains that it is not about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 but about the cost and consequences of state actions before and after.  Her long view reveals that the connections between Ground Zero in 1945 and Ground Zero in 2001 are more than metaphorical.  These are connections not equivalences – and far from simple – but like Shamsie I believe that many of the political and military responses to 9/11 can be traced back to the Cold War and its faltering end and, crucially, that the de-stabilization of the distinction between war and peace was not the febrile innovation of the ‘war on terror’.  I start by mapping that space of indistinction, and it will soon become clear that the dismal architects of the ‘war on terror’ (the scare-quotes are unavoidable) not only permanently deferred any prospect of peace but claimed to be fighting a radically new kind of war that required new allegiances, new modalities and new laws. Here too there are continuities with previous claims about new wars fought by the advanced militaries of the global North, conducted under the sign of a rolling Revolution in Military Affairs and its successor projects, and quite other ‘new wars’ fought by rag-tag militias in the global South: all of them preceding 9/11.

I turn to those new wars next, and this brings me to the second reason why Shamsie’s work is relevant to my own discussion.  While she was writing Burnt Shadows she used Google Earth to disclose the textures of New York City, and marvelled at how obediently they swam into view: ‘3D models of buildings, amazingly high-resolution images, links to photographs and video streams of Manhattan.’ When she turned to Afghanistan, however, all the details dissolved into ‘an indistinct blur, and the only clues to topography came from colours within the blur: blue for rivers, brown for desert, green for fertile land.’  But that was then (2006).  Three years later, a different Afghanistan was brought into view.  ‘As I click through all the YouTube links tattooed across the skin of Afghanistan,’ she wrote, ‘I encounter video clips of American solders firing on the Taliban, Canadian politicians visiting troops, Dutch forces engaged in battle, an IED blast narrowly missing a convoy of US soldiers, a video game in which a chopper hails down missiles and bullets on a virtual city which looks more like Baghdad than Kabul.’  Shamsie uses these distinctions to remind us that ‘we’re still using maps to inscribe our stories on the world.’  So we are; and throughout this book I also turn to these violent cartographies, as Michael Shapiro calls them: maps, satellite images and other forms of visual imagery. These inscriptions and the narratives that they impose have a material form, and they shape both the ways in which we conduct ‘our’ wars and also the rhetoric through which we assert moral superiority over ‘their’ wars.  Yet even as I sketch out these contrasting imaginative geographies, another indistinction – a blurring, if you like – seeps in.  For one of the most telling features of contemporary warscapes is the commingling of these rival ‘new wars’ in the global borderlands, the ‘somewhere else’ that Abdullah reminds Kim is always the staging ground of America’s wars.

And this brings me to the final reason for travelling with Burnt Shadows: Abdullah’s insistence that war is like a disease.  This is an ironic reversal of the usual liberal prescription that justifies war – which is to say ‘our’ war – as a necessity: ‘killing to make life live’, as Michael Dillon and Julian Reid put it.  They argue that war in the name of liberalism is a profoundly bio-political strategy in which particular kinds of lives can only be secured and saved by sacrificing those of others.   You might say that war has always been thus, but what is distinctive about the contemporary conjunction of neo-liberalism and late modern war is its normative generalization of particular populations as at once the bearers and the guardians of the productive potential of ‘species-life’.  Here too there are terrible echoes of previous wars, and these brutal privileges depend, as they often did in the past, on discourses of science and economics (and on the couplings between them).  But contemporary bio-politics also draws its succour from new forms of the life sciences that treat life as ‘continuously emergent being’.  This is to conjure a world of continuous transformation in which emergence constantly threatens to become emergency: in which there is the ever-present possibility of life becoming dangerous to itself.  For this reason the social body must be constantly scanned and its pathologies tracked: security must deal not with a grid of fixed objects but a force-field of events, and war made not a periodic but a permanent process of anticipation and vigilance, containment and elimination.  Mark Duffield calls this ‘the biopolitics of unending war’ – war that extends far beyond the killing fields –in which the global borderlands become sites of special concern. Its prosecution involves the production of new geographies – new modes of division and distinction, tracing and tracking, measuring and marking – that provide new ways of continuing the liberal project of universalizing war in the pursuit of ‘peace’.  In the face of all this, Abdullah had a point.


‘Stalking in the air…’

My title is of course a riff on Howard Blake’s song for the film version of Raymond Briggs‘s The Snowman.  Briggs himself despairs of the saccharine treatment of his original story, which was intended to teach kids about mortality… so at this time of year it’s a starkly appropriate way into Drone Week at Open Canada (a project of the Canadian International Council).

Drone-Week-Banner

One you navigate to the site, click through on Kill, Watch and then Aid.

Kill: The series opens with a feature essay from Micah Zenko on Lethal Drones, and commentary from Amitai Etzioni (‘Why drones win’), Denis Stairs (‘Drone proliferation’)  and Jennifer Welsh (‘The slow death of the noncombatant’).

Watch: The series continues with a feature essay from Peter Singer on the Robotics Revolution, and commentary from Matthew Schroyer (‘Drones for good’), Ryan Calo (‘Letting drones reach their potential’), Joshua Foust (‘Drone knows and unknowns) and Fraser Holman (‘Are drones right for Canada?’).

Aid: The final section has a feature essay from Jack Chow on The case for humanitarian drones with a response from Nathaniel A. RaymondBrittany Card and Ziad Al Achkar (‘The case against humanitarian drones’).

And there’s more to come…

UPDATE: My own invited contribution – Where drones fit in fields of violence – is here.  In case you’re wondering, I didn’t provide the title – or the subtitle…

(Open Canada also has similar portfolios on Surviving violence: Civilian Protection in Armed Conflict and Twitter and Diplomacy – both worth checking out).

The twitter of drones

BAFANA Tweet Drone strike in YemenBack in May the Bureau of Investigative Journalism described how local activists were using Twitter and other social media platforms to spread the news of US drone strikes in Yemen.  Haykal Bafana, a lawyer living in San’a, the capital of Yemen, kept up a barrage of tweets recording the ‘covert’ strikes in near real-time, which were then amplified through Facebook and micro-news platforms in the region. You can follow him here.

Haykal Bafana

This is all of a piece with the incorporation of social media into the conduct of late modern war that was evident during Israel’s recent attack on Gaza and, as Noel Sharkey told the Bureau,

‘It is incredible how the same type of technology used by the CIA to kill people with drones in the Yemen, is empowering the Yemenis to tweet the attacks as they are happening. They can send us all pictures and bring us closer to the horror they are experiencing. Technology in the small may eventually bring down the over-use of military technology in the large.’

Josh BegleyDrone strikes are certainly now being made visible across a range of social media platforms, and now comes news – from the wonderful Jorge Amigo – that Josh Begley (whose Drones+ app was serially rejected by Apple) has started tweeting what Jake Heller calls ‘the entire history of US drone strikes’ in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as part of a graduate class at NYU, Narrative Lab, which focuses on ‘the impact of interactivity and technology on traditional narrative structure’.  Begley told Heller that, for him, ‘it’s about the way stories are told on new social-media platforms.’

Dronestream

How complete the data series can be is an open question – and the rhetorical impact would be even more devastating if Afghanistan were included – but as you can see from my screen grab above Begley, who started at noon on Tuesday 11 December, tweeted that after twelve hours ‘we’re only at March 2010’…  Follow him at Dronestream here.  And, as Connor Simpson at the Atlantic Wire commented, ‘if this project doesn’t merit an A, we would love to see one that does.’